Editor's Note: This article is an excerpt from Ari Berman's Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
A month after the 2008 election, Barack Obama summoned his Democratic Party chair-in-waiting, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, to Chicago and explained how his presidency and party could prosper going forward.
"How many presidents have tried to meaningfully tackle healthcare?" Obama asked Kaine, who would soon replace outgoing party chair Howard Dean.
"Every Democrat since Truman," Kaine responded.
"How about energy reform?" Obama continued.
"I remember Nixon saying we were importing too much foreign oil, and now we import three times as much," Kaine replied.
"So if they didn't succeed," Obama asked rhetorically, "was it because they weren't smart enough?"
"No, they were smart," Kaine answered.
"Was it because they didn't know the ways of Washington?" Obama followed up, pressing his point like a vintage constitutional law professor.
"No, they knew the ways of Washington," Kaine added.
"So if I try to do these heavy lifts just like they did, what are my chances?" Obama wondered.
"Pretty much zero," Kaine responded.
"Yeah, so what we have to do is figure out a different way to do it," Obama answered.
"If you just rely on your inside-the-Beltway savvy," Kaine agreed, "that's never going to be enough to make fundamental and important changes, because the forces of inertia inside the Beltway are just going to get in your way."
They both concluded that preserving what Kaine called the "outside-the-Beltway popular muscle" that defined Obama's campaign would be an essential ingredient for the new president's success.
At the same time, a debate raged inside the Obama coalition over the future shape of the president-elect's powerful campaign arm. Obama organizing veterans Steve Hildebrand and Marshall Ganz pushed for an independent organization that would be able to pressure Democrats to support the president's agenda and act, at least theoretically, separate from the White House. But most influential Obama advisers, led by former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, saw the Democratic National Committee as its natural home. An independent entity would needlessly antagonize Democrats and be difficult to structure for legal and financial reasons, they argued. Plouffe and company also didn't want it to seem like Obama's re-election campaign was starting the day after his election. In the end, Obama for America became Organizing for America—a quasi-autonomous entity within the DNC. OFA promised to change the very nature of governance in Washington, bringing millions of politically savvy Obama supporters into the legislative process and building an unprecedented, people-powered army that could thwart the entrenched power of wealthy corporate interests.
In the early days of Obama's presidency, it really did feel as if a new day was upon us: Obama passed a massive stimulus bill with ease, presented an entirely different America to the world and effortlessly swatted flies in the middle of TV interviews. These glimmers of hope, however, soon gave way to the harsh realities of governing. During the fight over healthcare reform, the same old intransigencies came back into play. As top Democrats wavered over whether to support a public insurance option and negotiations broke down behind closed doors, ascendant Tea Party activists hijacked the debate in the summer of 2009, screaming about death panels and socialized medicine and comparing Obama to Mao/Hitler/Stalin.
"In the whole period in which we didn't know what Obama was for and nobody was mobilizing or asked to mobilize, it created this huge vacuum," says Ganz, an expert on community organizing at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "So the Teabaggers came in and filled it up." Democrats initially dismissed this sudden outbreak of right-wing rage, but the new regime in Washington seemed powerless to stop it. Virtually overnight, the enduring Democratic majority appeared just as fleeting as Karl Rove's master plan for the Republican Party.
In states across the country, from North Carolina to Indiana to Colorado, the feeling of euphoria that followed Obama's campaign is now a distant memory. The anti-incumbent rage among voters that threw Republicans out of office and put Obama in the White House has not dissipated since Democrats took charge of Washington. In fact, with the economy still limping and little getting done inside the corridors of power, voter angst has only increased—the principal reason Democrats are in such trouble with the midterm elections rapidly approaching.
Obama and his followers, such a potent force during the presidential campaign, are no longer the stars of the moment. "The Obama people ran the best campaign I've seen in all my life in politics," says Howard Dean. "But they couldn't translate it into government." Nearly two years after his historic election, what has become of Obama's famed movement? Where is its leader?